Subscriber OnlyAthletics

Mona McSharry: ‘I’d come to the conclusion that I hated swimming’

Olympic medal prospect speaks of her love-hate relationship with the sport ahead of the World Championships in Doha

Something is clearly not okay when Mona McSharry finds herself at a European Swimming Championships in Rome, a year after making the Olympic final in Tokyo, secretly praying she won’t make another final and face the unbearable tension and expectation that would come with it.

“I was actually jumping for joy because I was done, the season was over,” she says now. “I’d come to the conclusion that I hated swimming, really disliked it.”

Trace the trail of any Olympic athlete and they will tell you about their sometimes hidden battles along the way, and talking from her student residence in Knoxville, Tennessee, where that trail continues, McSharry is being startlingly open about hers.

“Goodness, I could go on forever with this.”


The long-distance interview is arranged by Swim Ireland to coincide with its team announcement for next month’s World Championships in Doha, where McSharry and Daniel Wiffen will again seek to go where no Irish swimmer has gone before – on to the world long-course medal podium.

Last summer in Fukuoka, McSharry was fifth in the 100 metres breaststroke, relegated from second to fifth in the frantic finish, before Wiffen twice finished fourth, in the 800m and 1,500m freestyle.

Both McSharry and Wiffen will then turn their medal ambitions to the Paris Olympics in July. For McSharry, there will be an entirely different mindset and approach; there simply had to be.

That’s because less than a year after making that Olympic final in Tokyo as a 20-year-old – the first Irish swimmer to reach that stage since Michelle Smith de Bruin in Atlanta in 1996 – McSharry was on the verge of quitting, suffering a personal crisis of confidence.

She’d already made up her mind she’d finish out that 2022 season, and if things didn’t improve, she was done. It was unquestionably the low point too in her now four years swimming scholarship at the University of Tennessee. But it is a battle the 23 year old has thankfully come through and won.

“I think after the Olympics, I thought hitting it full steam would be the best way to get over that cycle,” she says. “We had a couple of conversations with people from the Olympics and they explained how people experience a lull after, not knowing what to do next.

“For me, I thought that wasn’t going to be an issue. I was straight back to college, racing, I thought it’d be okay. But I had a really hard semester in school and put so much pressure on myself after having a good performance at the Olympics.

“So I think it became very tense and uncomfortable. Training became very stressful, competition became very stressful. School was very hard. I was struggling but not necessarily realising it. I let it get pretty bad. I wanted to race, but it was more so for relief, swimming fast. And I’d be relieved I swam fast rather than excited, because that’s what I experienced at the world short-course that December.”

Everything is kind of mapped out for swimming. And so I felt like I was trapped in something that I really disliked.

—  Mona McSharry

They took place in Abu Dhabi, in December 2021, McSharry’s bronze medal, won in the 100m breaststroke, adding to her already unique medal tally in Irish swimming – as a teenager from the small Sligo hamlet of Grange, near the ocean at Mullaghmore, she won a European junior gold in the 50m and 100m breaststroke in 2017, and in the same year won world junior gold in the 100m breaststroke.

Despite the Abu Dhabi success, her mindset had changed: “I really wasn’t that happy, which doesn’t make sense. I came back, completed the college season up until March, I kept training into the summer.

“I stayed here over the summer. I was living by myself, training at the pool but not really enjoying that. It just came to a head some Sunday in the middle of summer. I remember waking up and I was really upset, crying… I didn’t know why I was crying. I was really unhappy.

“So I called my friends from home. I was talking to them anyway, and we talked through it, and they helped me realise what was going on. And I didn’t realise it stemmed from swimming. I thought I was just stressed from school, from other things, and never really realised that maybe swimming was the cause.

“I mean that’s all I do, especially in the summer when I don’t have classes, I’m going to the pool, I’m swimming, I’m fuelling because of training, I’m sleeping because of training, everything is kind of mapped out for swimming.

“And so I felt like I was trapped in something that I really disliked. And so I decided I was going to finish the season because I knew I wanted to swim at European long-course that summer [in Rome].

“But my head really wasn’t in it at all. I remember swimming the 50m semi-finals breaststroke and I didn’t make it back to finals, and I was just really excited to be done. So in that moment I felt ‘I’m done with this’. But after a taking a break and spending time with family, doing other things, I did miss it a little bit. I wasn’t fully ready to give up.

“I took a really long break, went home for a little bit, kind of chilled, didn’t train at all at the end of August, start of September, and made the decision with my coach. I’d been speaking to my coach about this at this point, that I wasn’t ready to be done. But I had to try and change something.”

Which is exactly what she did, taking the advice of her close friends and family and her coach at Tennessee. She went into the 2023 season feeling less pressure, and with a more relaxed mindset, it paid dividends. She swam to three podium finishes at the NCAA Championships staged in Knoxville, before finishing just 0.13 of a second off bronze at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, having held second going into the last 10 metres. Paris qualification was her consolation prize.

She followed that with a hat-trick of gold medals at the European Under-23 Swimming Championships in Dublin in August, thankful now that she afforded herself that year to rediscover some of the original joys of the sport.

“And if I couldn’t do that by December, I was going to be done. That was kind of the deadline I had set for myself, regardless of anything else. I was like ‘okay, we’re going to see how this goes, I’m just going to try to come in with a calm, fresh mindset’.

“At that point, they hadn’t decided that the Worlds that summer was going to be a qualification meet for the Olympics. So, to me, that season was kind of like open-ended. I didn’t set any goals, there wasn’t anything big I had to do, so it was like ‘it doesn’t really matter, let’s take a little bit of the pressure off, calm down, and really try to enjoy training and maybe be a little bit lighter on myself’, and so I did that.

“I don’t exactly know what I did to change it, but it changed and, so, I had a really great training season that season. I’m just trying to carry the same light-hearted, no-pressure [attitude] into this season as well, although there is a little bit more pressure with it being an Olympic year. But it’s been working so far.

“I definitely have a different view on swimming than I used to. It used to be everything for me, and I don’t love it in the same way now, but I don’t hate it anymore. I was able to get myself out of that place.”

She’s already planning a lengthy break after Paris, and with one more season of NCAA eligibility, will return for a final spring term in Tennessee next year, already set to graduate in May with a degree in kinesiology.

She’s also found a more balanced lifestyle approach, whether that’s a long hike in the Tennessee hills with her dog Luna, an American Pitbull terrier, or knitting another sweater for a family member.

“I do feel like I do a lot outside of the pool, to help me better in the water, so sometimes when I’m not swimming fast in the water, I’m like ‘then what am I doing this for?’, like all of these different things, this lifestyle that I’ve created?

“But I’ve tried to remind myself that a lot of the stuff I choose to do outside of the water I do because I enjoy it as well as for swimming. With nutrition, I love to cook, I love to eat good foods so I don’t necessarily know if that would be any different if I wasn’t a swimmer.

“I’ve definitely had some people, athletes and not athletes, tell me that they didn’t realise I was going through that but, yeah, they’ve experienced something similar or it’s nice to know like it isn’t just plain sailing all the time. It comes a little bit also with maturity, knowing that someday swimming will end for me.

“Through that whole year that I was somewhat unhappy and uncomfortable, it was kind of hard to tell. We live such a busy life, it’s so scheduled, it’s so structured. You get out of the pool and you’re like ‘okay, I didn’t really enjoy that but that’s just one day, we’ll wake up tomorrow and do it again and it’ll be fine.’

“But sometimes I portray that onto people, and did the same with my teammates, and so I had to just reframe and realise, I’m not just there to win medals, I’m not just there to score points, I’m there to inspire the next generation, I’m there to be a great teammate and to support my friends.

“After the Olympics, it would have been helpful to take a couple of weeks completely off of school and swimming. It’s really hard to do especially when you know you have competitions coming up. And also just realising sport is more than just winning, it’s about enjoying the competition, finding these little things to get better. So I’m trying to focus more on that than just the end goal of winning.”